Medical officials warn of a growing threat from the COVID-19 'Kraken' variant
A new highly contagious and ominously dubbed the "Kraken" subvariant of COVID-19 is driving infections in the northeastern part of the country and showing up in greater numbers in Illinois as well.
Infectious disease experts and public health officials believe the newest strain of COVID-19 will quickly become the dominant version of the virus, but they aren't as sure about the severity of an infection.
"We know that it is more highly transmissible, but in terms of its deadliness, the jury is out on that so far," said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, head of the Cook County Department of Public Health, which services the suburban portion of the county. "We are paying attention to it, but the biggest lesson with these variants is the playbook doesn't change."
The new strain's Greek mythology nickname might be catchy, but it's officially designated as XBB.1.5. It received the "Kraken" moniker from researchers differentiating between the multitude of subvariants originating from the omicron strain of the virus. It is believed to have originated in New York City.
"It appears to be immune-evasive and could cause infection even in those who recently had COVID," said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. "It's sort of a reset variant, so all your previous immunity isn't going to help you with this one."
So far, barely 2% of the COVID-19 tests that are genetically sequenced in Illinois to determine the state's dominant strain are revealing a Kraken infection, according to Illinois Department of Public Health records. However, the World Health Organization reports the subvariant has been identified in 28 countries, and officials there called it the most transmissible yet.
"We don't have any reason to believe it will make you sicker or more virulent," said IDPH Director Sameer Vohra. "The hopeful part of me says we'll be in a better place, but we're not letting up our guard."
Illinois ended 2022 with 35,814 COVID-19 deaths since the outset of the pandemic, according to IDPH records. Of those, 20 came in the last week of the year. In all, IDPH recorded 7,864 COVID-19 deaths in 2022, which represents slightly less than 22% of all Illinois deaths caused by the virus.
Another 16,281 new cases of the disease were diagnosed in the week ending Jan. 1, IDPH officials noted Friday. The state health agency is now updating new cases and deaths only on a weekly basis instead of daily.
Currently, 1,766 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized throughout the state. Of those, 233 are in ICU beds, the most in nearly a year, IDPH records show.
Health experts expect infections and hospitalizations to rise in the coming weeks due to holiday festivities many attended recently.
"With the holidays and lots more indoor clustering, that's common for any kind of respiratory illness," Hasbrouck said.
Hasbrouck and others recommended greater mitigation strategies during months when there's likely to be prolonged exposure indoors. Masking, maintaining a safe distance and vaccinations are key to staving off infection, they said.
"You want to use anything in the tool kit," Hasbrouck said.
Vigilance is important year-round, Landon suggested.
"This disease doesn't act like influenza or RSV where it's a one-time-a-year thing," she said. "It's a constant threat that doesn't seem to be going away."
Cases have exploded in places including China and Europe recently, where many countries are reporting overcrowded hospitals.
Health experts in the U.S. are monitoring those conditions abroad, but note U.S. vaccines are considered more effective and there is greater access to antiviral treatments here as well.
Vohra said 45% of the state's population of residents 65 and older have received the most recent booster shot that targets dominant strains of omicron subvariants. That's above the national average, he said.
He also hailed antiviral medications, such as Paxlovid, that reduce the severity of symptoms.
"We have an incredible amount of tools at our disposal right now," he said.